My paternal grandfather’s first wife died in the 1918 flu pandemic, commonly referred to as the “Spanish flu epidemic”. The death left my grandfather with a newborn, my aunt, to raise by himself. This tragic event was rarely discussed in our family for reasons that were themselves never discussed. It was no secret, but it was understood by us children that we weren’t to ask too many questions.
The Wall Street Journal of March 7, 2020 has a very interesting special section entitled What We Can Learn From the 20th Century’s Deadliest Pandemic. According to the author, Jonathan D. Quick, “a third of the world’s population was infected, between 50 and 100 million people died, and the global economy shrank by 5%.” That’s a staggering number of deaths. Just think about having to estimate the number of deaths using a bracket that is as wide as 50 million people at the low end to 100 million at the high end. This pandemic came toward the end of World War I, which was itself such a bloodbath that it became known as the “war to end all wars”. The U.S. finally became involved after years of stalemated, trench warfare. The American Expeditionary Force lost an estimated 53,000 soldiers killed in combat. It is estimated that the U.S. lost 675,000 lives to influenza.
According to the author, Mr. Quick, “President Woodrow Wilson was so focused on winning World War I that he would not listen to repeated warnings about the pandemic from the chiefs of the Army and Navy, or even from his own personal physician.” “In 1918, the lack of National leadership meant that every city and state pursued its own approach to dealing with the epidemic. This created a series of natural experiments that allowed later researchers to assess the effectiveness of different approaches.”
Quick states that: “In every pandemic, people fall prey to stigmatization, distrust and rumormongering. The “Spanish Flu,” as the 1918 pandemic is still widely known, did not originate in Spain. Rather, because the country was neutral in World War I, its uncensored press was the first to report on the disease. As a result, many around the world blamed the Spanish for the epidemic, and the nickname persists to this day.
“As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on. In the U.S., the country’s millions of new immigrants had often been stigmatized as disease carriers during previous epidemics, but the 1918 flu struck every social class and every part of the country, so no single ethnic group was blamed for it.”
Echoes of the past are being heard today.
Mr. Quick emphasizes the necessity of accurate answers to the public’s questions and says the public lost trust in their leaders because the leaders had lied about the severity of the pandemic.
One has to wonder about how we will get timely, truthful, accurate answers to our most important questions in an age that more than ½ of us are said to receive a majority of our news from social media and foreign governments are intent upon sowing mistrust and social discord through the manipulation of social media.
It is also not helpful that our “leader” is taking the Coronavirus as a personal attack on himself and calling news from credible, trustworthy news organizations as “fake” and a “hoax” and demonizing Democrats such as Governor Inslee of Washington as a “snake”. This is one of those times it’s not all about him. The truth is far more important than his reelection.
Sometimes a good leader has to know their own weaknesses. Trump always wants to be the center of attention, but he has a big credibility problem. 71% of Republicans and Republican-leaners believe that Trump is honest. Only 7% of Democrats and Democrat-leaners view Trump as honest. This means that far more than ½ of the country are inclined not to believe Trump. He should turn all of the messaging over to a qualified, no-nonsense scientist with good public communication skills.
At best, Trump is a marginally successful reality-TV personality. There is nothing in his background that has prepared him for this moment and he wasted his credibility long ago. When we think of a crisis that tests a president, we usually believe that it will be a war or a confrontation with a foreign adversary, but this is not always so. For example, Obama had to deal with the financial crisis of 2008 as soon as he came into office. The Coronavirus is, of course, important in its own right, but it is also an audition of sorts for Trump who may be tested even more severely in the future.